TAMPA — With great binges come epic hangovers.
This is likely what you have been experiencing the past 97 days or so. Ever since Tom Brady announced his second retirement from the NFL, Bucs fans have endured days of mourning and mornings of daze.
This is the price you pay after so many nights as the life of the party. It wasn’t all champagne and dancing the past three years, but it was close enough. There were prime time games and celebrity fans. Nonstop tabloid coverage and three consecutive postseason appearances.
Brady made the Bucs hip and more successful than they’d ever been.
Barely a burp in the breeze.
Two weeks after the NFL draft, pundits and experts are nearly unanimous in their dismissal of Tampa Bay’s chances in the upcoming season.
Pro Football Focus ranks the Bucs as the 21st best team in their NFL power rankings. And they’d be considered wildly optimistic compared to others.
NFL.com has the Bucs coming in at No. 29 of 32 teams. USA Today ranks the Bucs No. 28. Sports Illustrated says No. 29 and the New York Post suggests No. 30. Peter King of NBC Sports sees the Bucs contending for the first pick in the draft with a No. 31 ranking.
Now, even in the best of times, power rankings are hardly gospel and they are particularly suspect when arriving four months before the first kickoff.
So does that mean you should you ignore the naysayers and embrace the possibilities?
Yeah, I wouldn’t go quite that far.
This is not a good team. The offense was 25th in the league in scoring last season, and that was with Brady throwing the ball. The offensive line was wholly unimpressive in 2022 and now will be unproven in 2023.
And maybe the defense was slightly better last year, but that was before losing defensive backs Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mike Edwards in free agency. It was also before Devin White stopped punching his timecard in the offseason.
So, is there any hope at all?
Turns out, most everyone thinks the Saints will stink, too. And the Panthers. And the Falcons. It’s hard to find universal agreement on anything in the NFL, but the general crappiness of the NFC South appears to be a unifying theme.
You would have to search long and hard to find anyone who thinks a South team is in the upper half of the NFL in terms of talent. The Bucs were the rare team to win a division with a losing record last season, and that remains a distinct possibility again in 2023.
That idea is critical to everything the Bucs have done this offseason. While it might have been a wise time for a complete teardown of a roster that finished last season with salary cap/age/injury concerns, the Bucs are still operating with one eye on the future and another on the playoffs.
And when the bar for success is set at 9-8 or 8-9, the idea of a struggling team throwing an end-of-year- party isn’t so outlandish.
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The key is understanding the future must take precedent. Worrying too much about week-to-week success is a sure way to produce mediocre results.
If the Bucs need proof, they need only look at the last team that tried to navigate the Brady hangover.
The Patriots, like the Bucs, were a team on the decline in their first post-Brady season. And, like the Bucs signing Baker Mayfield, the Patriots tried to plug the hole at quarterback by signing former No. 1 pick Cam Newton. Three years later, the Pats are 25-25 in the post-Brady world and still unsure about their future quarterback and their direction.
That doesn’t mean the Mayfield signing was a mistake. Kyle Trask is an unknown commodity and there’s still a slim chance that Mayfield unlocks his once-promising potential.
The key for the Bucs — and this goes for fans, too — is realizing the difference between building something sustainable and chasing a handful of wins simply to give the illusion of contending while trying to sell a few more season tickets.
In the end, every decent hangover comes with a little bit of pain.
It’s how you handle it that counts.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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